February 26, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) – Warm within my mother’s womb, an imperfection was building into my body. When my obstetrician-uncle, Dr. Al King, handed me off to my parents, he could not have known of the malformed snarl of blood vessels in my brain that would rupture around my 40th birthday, when it seemed someone had flung a tomahawk into the back of my skull.
For the better part of the week, I was as close to death as I imagine one is able to be. One night, when I was vomiting inside an MRI tube, I couldn’t tell the nurses I was choking on my vomit because the sloshing blood in my brain had rendered me unable to speak. I had perfect clarity of thought, though, and this unpleasant consideration reared its head: So this is what it feels like to die. This is Your plan for my end.
After unsuccessful invasive brain surgery, a once-hard-luck priest anointed and, alas, healed me; supernaturally, he (and I) believe. I’ve watched him weep when retelling what unfolded as he thumbed holy oil onto my head and begged the intercessory work of the saints
In the boredom of my long recovery, I often thought back to those vulnerable days in my dark neuro-ICU room, when phantasmical visions of demons, throbbing head pain, and Gethsemane loneliness crowded in on me. I recalled how I forgot how to breathe one night, and of when nurses tied my arms down because I swat at head shunts like they were clouds of late-summertime mosquitoes. And I thought of my wife Krista, who didn’t leave my side until she was told to by night nurses.
Mostly, though, I zeroed in on those moments when I was most disconsolate, when recovery didn’t seem in the cards. I had a single thought then: Soon, I will be judged by God. And what wasn’t running through my head were the great whoppers of sins from my past; what harrowed me were those things I chose not to do. Omissions, wide-sweeping and plenteous, were like sharks gathering in my conscience.
I asked Krista to have others pray for my soul. Too late now, I knew, to get to work.
Even still, 11 blessed years later, what pricks my conscience and plagues me most is when I fail in straining to do those things I know I must. Be it lethargy, sloth, procrastination, or simply sin, I know I fail most miserably when I lay down when the burden of my identity calls me to step in. I am a father who, naturally, knows he must amputate his own will to sustain and build up my family.
I’ve come to understand that this sloth and diminishment of my fatherhood is fed by a source; its wellspring is the sin of my pride. I’ve found that the malodorous sin of pride, in fact, works both ways. It is also pride that feeds my sensuality and my claim to the right to feel comfortable.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about my vocation as father within my own family, the state of fatherhood at large, and the state of the father as head of the family within Catholic parishes. My teenage son rolls his eyes because his little sister regularly watches Little House on the Prairie, often with me beside her. But what she clearly sees in this program – and sometimes Bonanza which comes on prior – is what seems a sacred and obligatory sacrificial dimension to fatherhood.
Silly as it seems, these old reruns have brought into focus the failures of my own fatherhood and those that I imagine have permeated many millions of homes and Catholic parishes worldwide.
There is great symmetry between the spiritual fatherhood wounds of the dad and Catholic priest. Just a few examples:
· The agonized dad, who out of frustration quits the hard work of teaching, disciplining and building up his most-troubled child, is like the priest who’s surrendered the hard work of generating spiritual sons and daughters – whose muted his prophetic voice in the face of the battering winds of Modernism’s assault on reason.
· The dad who unwinds each night with a few beers or a bourbon after work is like the priest who cuts off his cell phone for parish activity after 9 p.m.
· The dad who falls asleep or is repeatedly inattentive to his rebellious teenage son’s curfew would seem like the priest who remains spiritually unalert to the troubled souls of his parish.
· The dad who allows his teenage daughter to dress like a pre-converted Magdalene is like the priest who permits immodest dress at wedding Masses and is often consumed with large amounts of television and secular culture.
“The fewer sacrifices a man is required to make, to more loath he will be to make those few,” Blessed Fulton Sheen said. “His luxuries soon become necessities, children a burden, and the ego a god. Whence will come our heroes in a crisis, if we no longer have heroes in our home?”
It is my pride that is most deleterious to my role as father. As the arteriovenous malformation was subterraneously forming in the smallness of my body, so were the effects of Adam’s sin of sensuality and pride. Simply, it is this – over and over and over again it is this: unless I daily remind myself of John the Baptist’s words: He must increase. I must decrease – I cannot father my children well. Hubris, my own, will interminably block the movement of God, who thirsts to live like a libation and bright Halleluiah of grace within me.
As Adam (and Eve) showed an enormous amount of disobedience by blocking God out of a section of His Garden to engage in what was comfortable, I have to imagine that the great reason we suffer as a Church today is due to this same type of blockage and movement toward comfort. When clergy (or me) think – I will father as I see fit – God cannot work within us. The work of fatherhood cannot be sanctified – and our patterns of shepherding calcify. We become like decent social service workers, providers and helpers, but we cannot blaze paths of sacrifice because we refuse to empty ourselves to be fed by the Father.
And the Baptist’s refrain echoes – decrease, decrease, decrease – but we do not hear.
Even as the seemingly endless tide of scandals has pushed into the Church – there seems to be little movement toward a sackcloth-and-ashes penitential moment to acknowledgement of its immoral carnality, failure of transparency and abdication of paternal shepherding. Is this hidden from clergy’s eyes? My college-aged daughter’s questionable SnapChat photo, teenage son’s mood changes or 12-year-old’s desire to pray alongside me each night is ever before me. I am commissioned to be poured out like a libation for them. Anything short of this sort of holocaust or sacrificial dimension is soft-hearted, weak, and a dolorous disobedience to my identity.
The mission and focus of my fatherhood is to lead my children to heaven. It is my vocation. It’s of course the same for the holy priest. The dad and priest knows it demands a dying off; a self-amputation of our own will that will fortify our families. When I offer up myself, even to the smallest degree – picking up the broom, washing the dishes, leading the rosary – Christ’s love is put before them, even to the smallest degree.
Perhaps this diminishment of fatherly duty is the greatest reason why our Catholic Church is in travail; it starves for a sacrificial dimension of fatherhood to pour out like a tribute to paternal integrity over its scarred, angry and disillusioned flock. Laity agonizes as it searches out virile witnesses of fatherhood; teachers and authentic doers of sacrifice. The greatest act of love was borne out of sacrifice. It seems to be the only answer to redeem and regain the soul of the Church.
A priest from the Midwest, whom I trust with my life, recently compared the fatherhood of dads with those of priests. “We are called Father, but we are not trained in the seminary to be “fatherly.” Think of the fathers you know who have five or more kids,” this priest said. “Compare their lives to our lives as priests. When I look at the life of my contemporaries (married men with children), I have to laugh.
“I live in a furnished home that is lovely and paid for. They live in a home that is often run down, dirty due to children and family life, and it is not paid for. If I have a leaky roof, an HVAC problem, plumbing that needs to be taken care of – all I do is make one phone call, and it is fixed. If my friend has any of these problems, he needs to take care of it himself or pay a contractor.
“I have food and drink given by generous parishioners. He spends his hard-earned paycheck on grocery bills and has a fridge that seems to be like a black hole. I have amazing health care and people who ‘coach’ me to be healthy; he has medical bills that loom over his head and cause him stress. I have a yearly retreat which includes five days of silence; he has a week of summer vacation with his kids where he drops thousands of dollars to go to Disneyland, which is no relaxation.
“I am told again and again by brother priests, bishops and ‘mentors’ that the priesthood is a hard life – that you need to be a “real man” if you want to be a priest. Well, I would say this; you need to be a real man to be a husband and father in today’s world. And if you want to be a priest who is actually a man and effective – you better understand real “fatherhood” well. A father sacrifices all to save.”
Kevin Wells is a Catholic speaker, writer, president of the Monsignor Thomas Wells Society for Vocations, and author of the bestselling book The Priests We Need to Save the Church (Sophia Institute Press, 2019).